The Formation of the Modern State and the Institutionalization of Rule

Gianfranco Poggi. Handbook of Historical Sociology. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Engin F Isin. Sage Publication. 2003.

For some time now, within the broad field of historical sociology, a significant body of writing has dealt with the genesis and development of the state, and often treated such topics as an aspect of a larger theme—the nature and significance of modernity. Thus many of the most significant scholarly contributions have dealt chiefly with what we may call the ‘statalization’ of rule, and considered it as the most significant political aspect of European modernization.

This chapter, too, reflects that thematic preference, which requires in the first instance a brief definition of the somewhat unusual expression statalization. As used here, it refers to a set of processes in the course of which rule over a number of territories in the European subcontinent becomes highly institutionalized. Since the notion of institutionalization of rule, in turn, cannot be taken for granted, I treat it briefly below, drawing upon and extending a statement of it by Heinrich Popitz (1986). I suggest that rule becomes institutionalized to the extent that in principle it becomes:

  • Depersonalized; that is, rule comes to be vested in offices rather than in physical individuals as such;
  • Formalized; that is, the practice of rule refers increasingly to rules, to standardized, sanctioned expectations, which expressly authorize it, mandate it and control it;
  • Integrated; that is, rule increasingly takes into account other aspects of the social process, recognizes their significance and makes some contribution to their persistence, while being at the same time both: 1) Differentiated that is, the practice of rule addresses distinctive concerns and employs special resources (material and symbolic)—and 2) Organized, this expression suggests two related and at the same time contrasting phenomena: on the one hand, rule is exercised by and through a plurality of subjects (individual and collective); on the other, these subjects constitute together a single unit, which overrides their plurality.

However, the institutionalization of rule is not always conceptually equivalent to its statalization. It can be said to have occurred also in non-state polities, such as empires. Characteristic of the state, as I understand this concept, are:

  • The fact that the above aspects of institutionalization are implemented to a particularly great extent;
  • The manner in which they are implemented: for instance, the rules whose observance serves to formalize the practice of rule in the modern Western state are chiefly juridical rules, whereas in the case, say, of the Chinese empire they are ritual in nature;
  • The fact that, as Weber suggested long ago, the state makes particularly and exclusively its own a specific, critical resource legitimate violence.

Against this summarily stated conceptual background, this essay develops two main arguments. The first and shorter one amounts to an abbreviated narrative of the emergence and development of the state in modern Europe. The second, longer one makes explicit certain themes suggested by that first argument.

The Emergence of the State: a Narrative Overview

One can distinguish three broad phases in the historical career of the modern state, respectively: the consolidation of rule; the rationalization of rule; and the expansion of rule.

The Consolidation of Rule

With different timings and rhythms in different European locales, this phase lasts from the twelfth to the sixteenth century. The key aspect of the phase is that, as it runs its course, fewer and fewer political centres each extend their control over a larger and larger portion of Europe. The map of that (subcontinent becomes simpler and simpler, for each centre can now exercise jurisdiction in an increasingly uniform manner over bigger territories. These, furthermore, tend to become geographically more continuous and historically more stable with the decline in the patrimonial practices of dividing, bartering, lending, pledging, mortgaging, inheriting, enfeoffing and giving in dowry separate possessions, leaving room for more expressly political processes of conquest, annexation, forcible imposition of the superiority of territorial over feudal powers, and so on.

The institutional makings of this protracted transition are most diverse, They range from feudal faculties such as so-called ‘suzerainty,’ to ancient notions of kingship, to the establishment of ever broader and more lasting ‘peaces’—that is, sworn agreements among powerful elements to abstain from feuds and depredations—to the avocation of the most significant legal cases from local courts applying vernacular law to those established by the central ruler and applying Roman or common law. Unavoidably, the key material component of the entire process is a given centre’s ability to threaten or exercise overwhelming military violence to such an effect that other centres submit to it and surrender their autonomy. The accumulation of might, beginning with military might, is both the target and the key instrumentality of the whole process.

The Rationalization of Rule

Those centres that succeed in the ruthless process of ‘weeding out of the unfit’ to which the consolidation of rule amounts can undertake a conceptually different (though often historically overlapping) process, which takes place chiefly in the seventeenth and the eighteenth century. They arrange to exercise rule in a more purposeful, continuous, self-conscious manner, vesting various aspects of it in differentiated offices, manned by expressly trained, appointed personnel, operating according to stated rules, and controlled in those operations by superior offices.

Increasingly, each state is configurated as a pyramid of offices, culminating in that held by the sovereign, and carrying out his or her decisions, oriented in turn by the criterion of ‘reason of state.’ This criterion continues to attach priority to the accumulation of might and to the question of security, but is understood also to refer, in a more or less explicit manner, to concerns that are not directly and exclusively of a military nature, such as the construction and management of a system of regular extraction of economic resources—for instance, via mercantilistic practices—or the provision of conditions favouring the accumulation of private capital and its deployment in trades and other economic pursuits (North and Thomas, 1973).

The essence of the rationalization process is that the exercise of rule consists more and more in the application of certain bodies of knowledge (savoirs). Let us consider some of its most significant aspects.

First, rule itself is seen as a more and more distinctive social activity, which the state claims entirely for itself. By the same token, however, it renounces other concerns, while recognizing their significance and protecting and regulating their exercise. In particular, the state, through a complex of changes often referred to as secularization, progressively gets out of the religious business. Also, it increasingly recognizes that productive activities should be chiefly undertaken by private individuals and oriented to private interests. (See the distinction, in the absolutist era, between the imperium, which the sovereign claims as his/her own prerogative, and the dominium meaning, here, private property—which he/she leaves to the particuliers).

Second, the ‘positivization’ of law—that is, the fact that modern law is not just guaranteed but created by the state itself—progressively filters out of juridical discourse questions of justice and natural right, for the key condition for the law ness of law, so to speak, is that it should be produced and promulgated by the appropriate state organs according to their own procedural rules. Note, however, that state law applies more and more to the state itself, its strucure and operation.

Third, generalized social status (still resting chiefly on birth) ceases to be the main criterion for the holding and exercising of political and administrative offices. It is replaced in this respect by appointment from above, and later by election from below. The key criterion for appointment, in turn, becomes the possession of specific savoirs, beginning (but not ending) with juridical savoir. Such possession is presumptively indicated by the holding of degrees and/or the passing of recruitment tests, but the presumption must be subsequently confirmed by an individual’s performance in junior offices, critical for the attainment of senior ones. In other terms, what to the outsider appears as a pyramid of offices appears to the insider also as a career ladder.

Finally, the motivation for the proper execution of the tasks of office is no longer either the immediate pursuit of the holder’s private interest (which is now supposedly filtered off by rules about conflict of interest) or the sense that noblesse oblige. What matters, instead, is the office-holder’s awareness of and commitment to the objective requirements of tasks themselves, plus his or her expectation that such commitment will be recognized by superiors and rewarded by advancement. What is critical, in any case, is that the molecular institutional arrangement for the exercise of rule, in its increasingly diverse and significant everyday aspects, is no longer the exercise of the rights of privileged individuals but the cognitively oriented performance of the duties of properly appointed individuals. This makes it much easier to programme and to co-ordinate rule at large, by means both of the reference to general rules and of the subordination of inferior to superior officials.

The metaphor of ‘the state as a machine,’ in its several variants (from the clock to the locomotive), conveys the significance of this transition, and its affinity with other aspects of the modernization process. Max Weber’s discussion of bureaucracy (1968: 656–8), complemented (for instance) by Eisenstadt (1958) on bureaucratization, still constitutes the best sociological rendering of the same transition.2 The essence of it is that, on the one hand, it makes the exercise of rule more changeable and contingent (as is best seen by considering positive law) whereas, on the other, it makes it more uniform, predictable and efficient.

The Expansion of Rule

This characterization applies chiefly to the state in the second half of the nineteenth and in the twentieth century. It seeks to capture the fact that, once geared up and coupled with positive law, the machine of the state tends to involve itself in a greater and greater number and variety of social tasks, ranging from those typically associated with the notion of the welfare state to those required by the internationalization of the national economies.

But this way of viewing the process is somewhat partial, for it imputes its dynamic chiefly to the state itself, and particularly to its executive and administrative components. These are, indeed, responsible for some aspects of the expansion process, but a more acceptable rendering of the process requires a number of additional considerations.

For example, the imagery of a state which ruthlessly puts itself in charge of ever new tasks is potentially misleading if it suggests that the range of potential tasks was constant. In fact the whole process of social, economic, cultural (and not only political) modernization creates unprecedented opportunities, problems, strains and conflicts, some of which only the state can adequately deal with, in view of their urgency, and of the advantages to be drawn from confronting them in a self-conscious and purposive manner.

In addition, the democratization process and the ‘entry of the masses into politics’ are associated with the emergence of party systems and thus with the development of adversary politics. The willingness of one party or coalition to expand the reach of state action, and the reluctance of the other party or coalition to do so, are a recurrent component of their relations. On balance, the option to expand has prevailed more often than the contrary one, among other reasons because it was pushed by the enfranchisement of ever new groups, as well as by the interest of both parties in creating occasions for patronage. But it should be noted that also strongly entrenched interests, not only those of the relatively disadvantaged strata of the population, have often pushed the option to expand, for instance by committing the state to ‘research and development’ expenditures which the firms benefiting from them were not capable of bearing or unwilling to do so. (One must never forget that there has been a welfare state for the rich as least as much as one for the poor).

The expansion of rule was the dominant trend in state/society relations for at least two centuries, and was most visible, and most explicitly thematized and controverted, through most of the twentieth century, especially after the Second World War. There are some reasons for thinking that the last decades of that century saw at least a slowdown in and possibly an interruption to that trend. But from the perspective of this volume one might suspect that it is too early to tell! In any case, this chapter now moves on to its third task: a series of analytical reflections on the brief narrative of the last few pages, addressing four themes which lend themselves to contrasting interpretations (and evaluations), and which, taken together, go some way towards locating the main issues raised by the ‘discourse on the state.’

Four Analytical Perspectives

Reunion Versus Dispersal

This theme focuses on one question, relating to a well-known sociological distinction, that between inclusive and exclusive groupings: broadly speaking, that is, those open in principle to those who seek admission to them unless they are disqualified by special circumstances (for instance, a market) as against those which in principle do not admit members unless specially qualified (for instance, an aristocratic body). Another implicit reference is to the question of whether given social phenomena induce solidarities among participants or, on the contrary, have a tendency to divide them.

Up to a point, the process of statalization of rule is accompanied chiefly by the phenomena of reunion, by the emergence of broader and more inclusive solidarities. This is best seen in geographical terms; to quote a well-known statement of Charles Tilly’s: ‘The Europe of 1500 included some five hundred more or less independent political units, the Europe of 1900 about twenty-five’ (1975: 15). As this statement suggests, the political modernization of Europe generally entailed the sub-sumption of multiple, previously self-standing jurisdictions (most of them rooted in discrete localities and bounded by them) under a much smaller number of jurisdictions, in a movement which can only be seen as one towards reunion (or union, at any rate). Later evidence of this was provided by the fact that often monarchs, after their own kingly titles, would cite a veritable slew of lesser ones, from duke to margrave or baron, each referring to a locality previously ruled by his dynasty on some account or other, but subsequently comprised within a broader territory, rule over which was exercised by the king qua king.

Apart from its geographical aspects, the theme of reunion is significant ideologically as a recurrent justification for the state-making enterprise itself, as a way of accounting morally for the deprivations and risks it entailed for both rulers and subjects. Oneness, unity, wholeness, are central topoi in the rhetoric of conquest and war-making, but also in discourses relating to the building up of administrative systems, legal codifications, the subordination of local to trans local courts, the suppression of vernacular languages, customs, weights and measures, festivities.

Risking blasphemy, one might say that Jesus’ prayer Ut unum sint (let them be as one), expresses the driving motif of state-makers, their concern to pool together, incorporate, include and enclose. But perhaps the reference to a religious text is not so out of place, considering that, according to Harold Berman (1983), the Gregorian reform of the ecclesiastical polity, a key aspect of which was indeed the drive for oneness, played an exemplary role in the subsequent construction of secular polities. Carl Schmitt (1999) simply restates polemically that motif when he argues that there is no place for pluralismwithin states, but only between states.

However visible and compelling the ‘reunion moment’ may have been in the statalization of rule, it is not implausible to consider that process as also involving ‘dispersal.’ This is true, I would suggest, in two senses.

First of all, one should not forget that in its early phases the process partly presupposed and partly entailed the breaking up of an earlier, larger political entity, the Carolingian empire (and, for that matter, of the Church in its self-conscious representation as a universal polity). The dictum Rex est imperator in regno suo (the King is emperor in his Kingdom) expresses this aspect of that process: the drive of local rulers to ‘go it alone,’ to reject the previously accepted subordination to a broader, more comprehensive centre of rule, which sought to encompass all of Christendom.

In the second place, the protracted process of consolidation envisaged by Tilly over the span between 1500 and 1900 was by the latter date about to be arrested and indeed inverted. Immediately after the First World War, the Wilsonian principle of national self-determination legitimizes a phase of ‘dispersal.’ At the end of the Second World War, one might see in the formation of the Soviet and the Yugoslav empires, and, to a different extent, in the formation of the European Community, a resumption of the ‘reunion’ trend. But but by the end of the century those two empires have dissolved, giving place to an accelerated and chaotic ‘dispersal’ drive, and the European Community is still very far from representing anything like a state—even a federal one. The kind of pluralism endorsed by Schmitt has received a new push, and it is not particularly likely that, in the short to medium run, it will be arrested by a renewed process of political unification.

In any case, seen in a broad comparative-historical perspective, what characterizes the political environment of the late- and post-medieval West as against, say, the empires of the Near East and the East (Breuer, 1987) is its lack of unity, the fact that it contains a plurality of states which acknowledge one another and whose interactions, oriented by each state’s exclusive concern with the pursuit of its interests, engender only a loose, highly contingent, ‘open-at-the-top,’ tendentially anarchical system. ‘Dispersal’ is a continuing, constitutive feature of such a system, for all attempts to rationalize it by means of international regimes and organizations.

John Hall (1986) has pointed out (with others) that this ‘dispersed’ arrangement has made it possible for such values as individual liberty and the rule of law to emerge and establish themselves in the Western political environment. Much earlier, Hintze (1975) had suggested that, in this, the modern states system resembles the market system: both reflect a distinctive cultural preference for locating self-conscious rational action at the level of individual units; a higher-level rationality emerges only as the unplanned outcome of the units’ self-regarding strategies.

Hintze also points up what one may consider an interaction between ‘dispersal’ and ‘reunion’ aspects of the state’s development in his construction of an early phase of that development—Western feudalism. We tend to associate this chiefly with dispersal, with the fragmenting and multiplication of structures of rule; yet, according to Hintze, the formation of Western feudalism presupposes the memory—however dim and distant—of the Roman empire, and represents an attempt-however feeble and contradictory—to reconstitute a comprehensive political order, a unitary res publica.

Finally, let us note that the establishment of precisely located boundaries between territories—a modern innovation widely recognized as critical for the emergence of the territorial, sovereign states—reasserts, at the conceptual level, the interaction of those two moments, dispersal and reunion. For a boundary functions as the ‘horizon’ does: on the one hand, it delimits a given unit; on the other, unvoidably it points beyond itself, to what lies on the other side of it.

War Versus Societal Management as Critical Concerns in State-building

The literature on the emergence and development of the state shows a fairly sharp contrast between two lines of discourse concerning whether war-making, preparation for war, adaptation to the circumstance of war, played a central role in that story. Perhaps because this theme had been relatively neglected in previous discussion, recent literature has prevalently emphasized it, and persuasively conveyed a ‘bloody-minded’ view of military concerns as a critical aspect of the story (for example, Downing, 1992; Porter, 1994; Tilly, 1990). Tilly, once more, has given lapidary expression to this view: ‘[W]ar makes states, and vice versa.’ Somewhat earlier (in an important volume edited, as it happens, by Tilly himself), Samuel Finer (1975) had powerfully argued the same point, focusing on the interaction between the military, the fiscal and the properly political components of state-building. More recently, Thomas Ertman (1997) has shown in a particularly compelling manner not just that but how arrangements for war shaped the constitutional development of a whole set of European states.

The basic idea is simple, and powerful. As argued above, the statalization of rule is systematically accompanied by a selection process whereby fewer and fewer centres of rule establish their sway over larger and larger territories. To a very large extent—one should not forget other mechanisms, in particular that suggested by the dictum alii bella gerant, tu felix Austria nube (let others wage wars, you, happy Austria, arrange marriages)—this process takes the form of a given centre defeating other ones in war, and gobbling up their territories. Thus, in order to stay in the business of rule, political actors are compelled to equip themselves to mount, and to withstand, military challenges against, and from, each another.

Coping with such necessity engenders and shapes many aspects of rule—both aspects giving rulers a greater control over societal resources, and aspects moderating that control (because sometimes, in order to get access to resources, rulers are compelled to negotiate with powerful societal actors which accumulate and guard those resources). Recently this view, first elaborated by students of European state-making (with Hintze again playing a leading role), has been applied in sophisticated fashion to the American polity by Richard Bensel, whose Yankee Leviathan (1990) details the institutional impact of the Civil War both on the United States and on the Confederacy.

In his Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler (1990), David Kaiser has developed a related though somewhat different argument, according to which much (one might say too much) of modern European political history was driven by a particular dynamic: aristocratic dynasties active within a number of states, rather than their rulers, had a nasty penchant for war-making, expressing their persistent hankering after possessions, advancement and glory. Only on this account did wars continue being fought in spite of the fact that, as rulers often learned to their dismay, they were unconscionably expensive, destructive and inconclusive affairs, and as such they constituted a very risky and clumsy instrument of policy.

Notice, however, that, according to a minority view, represented within the literature of the last few decades by a book of Joseph Strayer’s, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (1973), one (or perhaps the) determinant component of the state-building process was represented by the effort of large landlords to rationalize the exploitation of their domains, rather than their attempts to encroach upon those of others. In other terms, state-building constituted chiefly an extension of ordinary, peaceful, domestic and patrimonial concerns, and the substance of it was in principle the improvement and intensification of the management of the ruler’s possessions. In developing this view, Strayer implicitly complements the frequent observation to the effect that the personnel assisting rulers in state-building were chiefly composed of aristocrats and clergymen; he points instead to the role played by administrators and managers, some of whom, as in the case of the German Ministeriales, were of lowly, sometimes unfree, status. It is as if the biblical Joseph, whose skills and competences were exclusively those of a shrewd administrator (albeit one uncommonly gifted when it came to interpreting dreams), embodied the key dynamic presiding over the statalization of rule.

The contrast between these two views of the central mission of the state is already evident in early theoretical visions. As Gerhard Ritter has argued in The Corrupting Influence of Power (1979), Machiavelli and Thomas More had already articulated that contrast, the former with his emphasis on the fortunes of war and the necessity of ‘good arms,’ the latter with his vision of the Commonwealth—the expression itself indicating a central concern with the production and distribution of goods rather than with deadly quarrels. Ritter suggests that these two conceptions of the business of politics reflect in turn the contrast between the European continent, where states survive only by aggressing against or defending themselves from one another, and insular Britain, protected by the sea from military threats.

As is often the case, each of these two views overstates its own case, which ought to be complemented by some consideration accorded the other one. The emphases, on the one hand, on inter-unit relations (and war) and, on the other, on domestic, intra-unit relations are each prevalently justified in different circumstances, phases, aspects of the state-building enterprise; but they also interact in individual situations.

A case in point is Prussia, where the military component of state-building is on many counts prevalent, and imparts its cast to all others, but also where the overwhelming presence of the army is complemented by an exemplary effort to build up (relatively) extensive structures of internal administration. These, too, have a military cast; but they are also very sophisticated, and the intellectual resources of financial management and of public law are joined to a previously unknown degree in their construction and operation. The development of Kameralistik a minor but not insignificant component of the development of modern economic science—accompanies this development. Its original intent is to rationalize the management of state possessions, but from a certain point on it merges into the new discipline of Polizeywissenschaft, which assigns to administrative authorities much wider responsibilities of societal management.

But this is not the only example of overlap between the apparently contrasting aspects of state-building emphasized respectively by the majority and the minority view. It has been pointed out long ago that the development of citizenship has been powerfully assisted, in some cases at least, by the massification of military obligation, and that the establishment of popular conscription has often been matched by the establishment or enlargement of suffrage—put otherwise, no conscription without representation! More widely, according to some accounts, the British polity was led to assume increasing responsibilities for medical assistance to the population by the realization that many of the young men targeted for service by British regiments in the Boer War and subsequently in the First World War were physically unfit for military duty. In the Second World War, as a defence against Vitamin C deficits, British children were given free orange juice; but the positive impact of this practice on their health became so obvious that it was continued after the war.

We may ask ourselves what is the contemporary significance of the contrast between the conceptions of what politics and the state are all about. This is a controversial question. Before 1989 some observers argued that, having become impossible for the states that mattered—the superpowers—to wage the war that mattered—nuclear war—the century-old centrality of war itself had been so to speak suspended, or displaced. War had become obsolete, and the confrontation between the superpowers had taken various forms, as closely related to war itself as the arms race, or competition in space, or as remote from it as the attempt of each to project through propaganda the superiority of its own ‘way of life.’

The year 1989 itself has had a complex impact: at first many saluted the end of the Cold War as ushering in a new era of peace, but the expected ‘peace dividend’ failed to materialize and local conflicts became more frequent and more bloody. Furthermore, according to many, the experience of the former Yugoslavia, and the failure of the European Union to make a serious difference to it, indicates the persistent necessity for a polity to have a security policy and a military capacity. Meanwhile, paradoxically, the call for a thoroughgoing ‘marketization’ of the social process at large, and the increasing internationalization of the economy, pose a threat also to the other conception of the state’s main mission, focused on the management of the economy.

Power Enhancement Versus Power Taming

There is a conservative view (articulated, for instance, by Bertrand de Jouvenel, 1962) according to which the story of state-building entails first and foremost a ruthless, restless search for power after power. The state itself is characterized as a form of ‘permanent revolution,’ as a totally self-seeking entity intrinsically at war with its own domestic society, which greedily preys upon the resources it produces, frustrating and defeating individuals’ search for their own happiness, suspicious of the relations they spontaneously enact.

This is best seen by considering the developing relationship between the political centre and the periphery in a unitary, non-federal country. The state limits if not suppresses local autonomies; replaces home-grown leadership figures (the notables) with officials and with party leaders; levels out traditional differences in the management of public affairs; creates new burdens for the populace (conscription, imposts, fees for administrative and judicial acts, the compilation of statistical information); sometime imposes on local populations linguistic, religious, cultural practices foreign to its traditions. In Peasants into Frenchmen Eugene Weber (1977) has persuasively narrated these various strategies of homogenization and the emergence of a relatively unified, national public. The imagery of the ‘predatory state’ which can be evinced, for instance, from de Jasay’s (1983) writings, construes in a similar way the relationship between the state and the domestic economic system—though less bloody-minded accounts of the same phenomena are more willing to acknowledge to what extent they have been functional, at any rate in some countries, to the modernization of their economy and to the amelioration of the resultant social dislocations.

Although such views, I have suggested, are generally put forward from the right of the politico-ideological spectrum (Nisbet [1965] in particular self-consciously re-articulates the horrified response to the French revolution of what Comte called ‘the reactionary school,’ that is, the counter-revolutionary thinkers), some such motifs have been echoed from the left. In particular, Foucault (1977) has emphasized the pervasiveness of power-seeking associated with such practices of the modern state as increased surveillance, or the building up of the penitentiary system; while Giddens (1985) has stressed the increasing significance of the former phenomenon.

In sum, in this perspective, state-building, and successively the expansion of state activities, constitute a massive exercise in power-seeking and power enhancement. One might say that all states tend to behave, vis-à-vis the countries where they erect themselves and function, somewhat like a conquering and occupying foreign power; or simply suggest that the hold of the state on civil society tends to become, over time, more and more heavy, pervasive, imperious and damaging.

However, one can counterpose to this view an alternative one emphasizing other aspects of the story. Let us mention a few.

In the first place the state, by confiscating from the multiple jurisdictions in which they were previously vested the faculties and facilities for the exercise of coercive power, and replacing them with its own monopoly of legitimate force, has pacified society, making it less and less likely that contending interests will (literally) make war on one another—as they previously did in exercising auto-tutela, Selbsthilfe, that is, in seeing themselves to the redress of wrongs putatively done to them.

A related effect has been to increase the rationality of productive processes. In particular, the negotiating of conditions of employment between formally equal contractual partners replaced the forcible imposition of working duties upon subaltern and subordinate individuals; the social organization of labour untied itself from traditional monopolies over certain trades, and its technical division from corporate regulation of productive and distributive practices.

Second, and more broadly: the expansion of the state’s power was accompanied by a process of autonomization of civil society, as a realm where different forms of not expressly political power remained or became established, new forms of relations between individuals and between groups were discovered and institutionalized, and Western culture experienced a spectacular, multi-sided growth. In principle, state-bulding meant not just that the ruling centre claimed for itself all political business, but also that it claimed only political business, forsaking, as we have seen, a direct involvement in religious concerns and in those pertaining to the production and distribution of wealth.

Finally, this self-limitation of the state has a further dimension, amounting not just to the state’s recognition of the autonomy of other ‘businesses’ of civil society, but also to a disciplining of its own activities. New forms of law develop which are intended not just to extend the state’s operations, but also to rationalize and moderate them. The state’s power becomes lodged within a new set of purposefully designed, expressly co-ordinated offices, with distinct tasks, faculties and facilities of rule, manned by personnel selected (in principle) for their ability to perform the related activities competently, efficiently and responsibly. As I have said, in this rationalization of rule, savoirs, beginning with juridical savoir, play a critical role. Now, Foucault has made us aware of the profound, manifold connection between power on the one hand, and different savoirs and the related forms of discourse, on the other. Yet, from the standpoint of Western values, that connection significantly differentiates power based on such discourses from power based on brute force and/or justified through sheer myth, relatively unamenable to discursive articulation and to rational argumentation.

The contrast between these two perspectives on what statalization has meant for political power, and thus on its bearing upon society, is stark. At bottom, one perspective tends to deprecate the processes in question, the other to celebrate it. But some lines of political thinking try to moderate that contrast, by envisaging regimes that acknowledge the rationality gains involved in statalization but at the same time remain aware of its dangers, of its tendency to run amok. I am thinking, for instance, of Tocqueville’s vision, in the second part of Democracy in America (1991), of the two paths open to democratic systems, one leading to tyranny, the other to moderate government. A characteristic of Tocqueville’s approach is the emphasis he lays not just on constitutional machinery, but also on the underlying cultural preferences and social practices of the people in question. This emphasis has pessimistic implications—for what of a people not gifted by history with the appropriate beliefs, values and capacities? In any case, his argument points up the contingent nature of the relationship to be established between (to re-employ the expression above) the enhancement and the moderation of the state’s power.

From the institutional standpoint, the attempt to reconcile the contrast between those two perspectives, to accept and sustain the empowerment represented by statalization while limiting the damage it can do to society, takes two main forms, often variously combined with one another. Schematically, there is a liberal approach, represented for instance by Humboldt, where various constitutional arrangements, sometimes culminating in the judicial review of legislative acts, secure public and private rights of individuals; and a democratic approach, where a greater and greater portion of the population, through representative institutions, selects the political leadership and mandates its main initiatives. The respective formulas are let law be the framework of policy and let politics be the matrix of policy.

Finally, the contrast between the two perspectives has numerous echoes in the themes of contemporary political debate. The conservative perspective, today, finds expression, in particular, in the renewed concern over the size of the fiscal take, a concern which in turn has led students seriously to entertain the imagery of the ‘predatory state.’ Other sectors of public opinion, on the other hand, insist that the state should remain able and willing to monitor and to an extent steer the social process, instead of abandoning it to the market (as their opponents claim that it should in order not to interfere, among other things, with the dynamic of globalization).

One may relate to our theme also the growing public and scholarly concern with the ‘principal/agent problem.’ By this I mean a set of questions such as the following: to what extent does the governmental machinery established to elaborate and execute policy according to a political mandate act instead in order to maximize its own access to resources, its own autonomy and discretionality? To what extent do, in particular, those parts of the state instituted in order to provide security and assistance to certain social strata or to the population at large operate chiefly, in fact, to maintain and extend the privilege and the leverage of various professional groups which utilize (and monopolize) the respective savoirs? Has the public sphere, colonized by the media and by related business interests, lost its ability to mandate, monitor, sanction public policy?

Continuity Versus Change

In the last few lines we have considered some themes relating to the nature and development of the state which have a public, political dimension, and are not just a matter for scholarly controversy. The last problem we pose, however, is again chiefly one for scholars, and arises when one attempts to consider ‘the state story’ as a whole, looking for continuities and discontinuities both within that story, and between that and the longer story of large-scale political systems.

As we have seen, it is plausible to see the advent of the state as constituting a major change, and possibly a revolutionary one, in the broader story of Western political arrangements. The two perspectives discussed above, from this standpoint, differ only in how they evaluate that change. It is possible, however, to argue for continuity within that story; and also this argument can be carried out from opposing politico-ideological positions: to simplify matters, both from the right and from the left.

From the left (and I mean here chiefly the Marxian tradition), the historical novelty of statalization of rule can be sharply discounted by viewing the state as no more (though also no less) than an ideologically more sophisticated, materially more effective way of securing politically class domination, adapted to the specific demands of the capitalist mode of production. The state projects itself as a community—but it is an imaginary one; it posits the equality of citizens before the law—but conceals behind it the persistence of class division and exploitation. What—in this critical, debunking vision—statalization does nothing to alter is the functional link between political arrangements and the phenomena of material production and reproduction. This link in turn is a persistent historical datum which only the socialist revolution—and thus, at long last, the real beginning of human history—can remove.

The historical novelty of statalization has been sharply discounted also from the right. Somewhere in the Trattato Pareto ironically apologizes to his reader for never discussing… ‘lo stato di diritto’ (rule of law)—an attractive conceit, he says, which he has never encountered in his researches. More broadly, writers in the Machiavellian tradition (Mosca and Michels, in particular), have argued that the dualism leaders/led, elite/masses is the central political phenomenon, with respect to which also the institutional and ideological changes associated with the state (or with the development of expressly democratic parties) constitute only a relatively insignificant variation. Somewhat more sophisticated arguments to this effect can be found also in Weber.

The historical novelty of statalization can be discounted (without of course denying it entirely) also by appealing to more specifically sociological arguments, to the effect that the institutional principles of the state are, themselves, historically quite novel, but are very difficult to implement. The social processes at work in the everyday reality of modern and contemporary political arrangements reveal the resilience, the obdurate persistence, of premodern practices which those principles have never been able to eliminate.

Consider a few, overlapping examples:

  • Clientelism is alive and well in states (and parties): informal ties of mutual or asymmetrical obligation, and/or networks of personal associates, are regularly detected by close empirical observation of collective units purportedly constructed according to bureaucratic principles. Such ties and networks constitute the actual carrying structures of all significant processes of information-sharing, resource allocation, task assignment, career progression; all manner of state activities are initiated and conducted only by means of those structures, hidden behind the official ones, and often at cross-purposes with them.
  • As to the operative culture of state organizations, again the official savoirs, both legal and technical, inform decisions, and preside over the implementation of public directives, to a lesser extent than do particularistic criteria, ad-hoc considerations, ‘muddling through,’ sheer routine, the rendering and claiming of favours, opportunistic conduct, adaptive responses to illegal pressures.
  • As Roth (1987) has emphasized, in many states some decision sites are almost expressly constituted according to patrimonial rather than bureaucratic criteria, and some of these sites are of the utmost significance—in the US government, nothing less than the White House itself!

Another version of the ‘argument for continuity’ takes for granted that state-building represented a highly innovative historical enterprise, but suggests that, once built, states develop a great inertia, and become incapable of further change. Much of the current literature on ‘reinventing government’ (see, for example, Osborne and Gaebler, 1992) revolves around this theme, as does the charge that, since the Second World War, Western political systems have been massively overtaken, in the promotion of change, by other societal realms: science; technology; industry; the complex of practices relating to sex and reproduction; culture—both high and mass culture; the values and beliefs inspiring and expressing the sense of self; the management of the body and of interpersonal relations. Although it had expressly constituted itself, in the societal division of labour, as that organ through which society could self-consciously act upon itself, steer itself towards and through change, the state—according to this argument—has become torpid, top-heavy, insensitive, incapable of perceiving and reacting to the multiple changes occurring in the societal environment, let alone of initiating change itself.

Alternatively, changes originating expressly in the political real are successively subverted by others with a different origin: what good did it do the United Kingdom that it won the Second World War? Did Japan and Germany really lose out by losing it? How much better off is the Russian population now that the Soviet system is gone?

Clearly, those who hold that the modern state has not changed things that much, or that it has lost its original capacity to change the political realm and through it other parts of society, can score some easy points. Whether this wins them the debating match is for the reader to decide.